Thursday, 23 August 2012

Alien Cargo, and a trip down memory lane...

This is a bit more personal than the last couple, so bear with me. It has a Moral.

Last night, I watched a movie for the second time called Alien Cargo. It starred the cinematic giants of Jason London (of Dazed and Confused fame) and Missy Crider (who apparently was in Mulholland Drive, but I don't remember, mainly due to messily removing memories of that film with an ice pick). It has a 5.5 rating on IMDb, and is Unrated on Rotten Tomatoes. It also has a terrible, terrible title. So why did I watch this?

A little history. I have lived in the town where I currently live for virtually my entire life. Stuff's come and stuff's gone, and to be honest I've never been that attached to most of it, with two exceptions. One was a shop called 1st Compute, a brilliant emporium of all things game-related run by one of those omnipotent shop-holders who know all release dates ever, and if you're a regular will sell you stuff without asking your age. It disappeared one summer when I was at university. To pour hydrochloric acid into the wound it is now called LA Nails and stinks of nail varnish remover. This is what I think of when people online complain about remakes and reboots doing unspeakable things to their childhoods. This was much worse and much more personal than that.

The second was the video rental store, ChoicesUK. You may remember them as a competitor to Blockbuster that went into administration and all but vanished in 2007. The store that they occupied here is still empty five years later.

(I am getting to a point)

It's a little difficult to express how much I lived in this shop when it was open. I even went in there to buy sweets and crisps with spare money I had, just so I had an excuse to browse. Now, as I recall in around 1999, the actual video card was my Mum's (I got my own later) and with this I could get virtually anything I liked out, with some exceptions on the ratings of course - I was generally allowed to watch the 'next one up', so 15s when I was 12 (this was before the 12 rating even existed). My sister usually got Disney films and the like, as well as new releases (which were expensive), so I generally got out the stuff that was on the '£2.00 for a week' shelves. And as many comedies and certainly horror were out of reach, that left me with the science fiction shelf.

I must have seen everything on that shelf at least twice. It included things like Event Horizon (I covered up the rating), Mission To Mars, Red Planet, The Arrival, Deep Impact. It also included a lot of dreck, which thankfully has been lost to the mists of time. One film I saw when I was 11 though stayed with me. I had a faint memory of the plot and the setting, and I also remembered that it was quite creepy to the 10 year old me, but I had no idea who had been in it or what it was called. Here's what I had to go on:
"It was about a crew on a spaceship where all bar two of them were asleep for two months at a time to run the ship. Trouble was Shift 2 woke up and there was no sign of Shift 1 and it was 6 months later than when they were supposed to wake up."
 A couple of days ago, I was telling someone about this, and it suddenly occured to me that someone, somewhere online must have heard of it. So, armed with my vague description, I posted on PWOT, and someone told me the title. About 10 minutes later I was watching Alien Cargo on youtube.

(Honest to God, there is a point coming)

To call it a nostalgia trip was a bit of an understatement. This was something I had watched, and been creeped out by, over half my lifetime ago. I also went in fully expecting it to be awful. So what did I really think? First things first, classic this ain't. The script is dire, the CGI looks like it's made out of Lego and hilariously a man turns up at the beginning who may as well be wearing a t-shirt saying "Hi! I'm Mr Exposition! Please, explain things to me!"

However, I was pleasantly surprised. The set-design is excellent and claustrophobic, the sinister score hangs over the whole thing like a blanket, and the two leads are juuust good enough to be engaging and likeable. I wouldn't exactly recommend it unless you're a fan of "small crew stuck on big ship in space" movies (that seems a kinder name than "Alien rip-offs") as you're unlikely to get the same nostalgia trip out of it I did, but it is worth noting that it lacks an awful lot of the pointless jump-cut OOGA BOOGA stuff that dominates the horror and sci-fi genre nowadays. It's tense. It takes its time. I dig that.

So what's my point? (Hey! We made it!)  My point is, sometimes stuff you liked when you were a kid can surprise you when you're an adult, and that it's sometimes worth seeking out movies you saw once or twice, or music you used to listen to. It can invoke all sorts of nice memories of Times Gone By. And you never know, you might discover a new schlocky classic.

Peace out.


Saturday, 18 August 2012

Pussy Riot

I am going to get hate mail for this.

Like most people, I've been following the Pussy Riot story with half-interest over the previous couple of months, and it now appears to have reached a conclusion. Trouble is, I have a feeling we are being told one side of the story, or at the very least one perspective. And that perspective is "Evil Russian State oppresses Innocent Protestors."

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not on the side of Putin and his cronies. Russia as a state is still mind-blowingly corrupt. Quotes from the website Freedom House ...

"Only a handful of radio stations and publications with limited audiences offer a wide range of viewpoints. At least 19 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power, including three in 2009, and in no cases have the organizers of the murders been prosecuted. The authorities have further limited free expression by passing vague laws on extremism that make it possible to crack down on any speech, organization, or activity that lacks official support."

"The judiciary lacks independence from the executive branch, and career advancement is effectively tied to compliance with Kremlin preferences."

 ... tend to suggest that Russia is a bit authoritarian and oppresive, to put it mildly. To say that this is a step up from the Soviet Union and the economic chaos of the 90s seems a bit redundant.

In the media circus that has erupted around this, what the three members of Pussy Riot actually did has been a bit lost. In simple terms, they went into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (fun fact: tallest orthodox cathedral in the world) wearing home-made ski masks, crossed themselves, and then began an obscenity-laden song asking the Virgin Mary to 'become a feminist' and get rid of Putin. They also filmed part of it for use in the music video. They were later arrested, and tried for 'hooligansim'. The main thrust of the criticism is that the police and Kremlin response has been disproportionately severe. That is about as neutral account of it as you will read.

So, what's wrong with this picture?

At the risk of seeming pedantic, the most obvious thing is that they weren't accused of Punk Rock as an offence. The right to free speech and the right to perform your music wherever and whenever you want are two completely different things -  you can think of them as stuffy or old-fashioned, but members of the Russian Orthodox church do have a case for being legitimately offended. Propaganda aside, it is instructive to note that only 6% of the Russian population support their actions.

The second, and this is just my personal opinion, is that the whole thing comes across as marginally juvenile. I would be a lot more sympathetic if it had at least seemed more sincere - if you have a serious political point to get across, swearing is unnecessary.

The third is that two of the women, when arrested, denied that they had anything to do with it. Again, if you honestly believe in your 'cause', you stand up for it when the going gets tough. That's what Mandela did, and he was a lot more unfairly treated.

The final point, and one that has been glossed over slightly, is that if they had done what they did in St Pauls Cathedral in London, they would probably have been arrested as well - it's called 'Disturbing the Peace'. They would not have got anywhere near the response from the police or the government (Hooray for liberal democracy!) but I would put money on the public approval ratings being about the same.

There is a story here, and a very good one, about the nature of the Russian political and judicial systems, and how they are manipulated. Russia has a hell of a long way to go in terms of its freedom indices and its treatment of defendants in high profile cases. Unfortunatrly, it's being buried at the moment beneath a layer of partisan political protesting that oversimplifies the issue horrendously.

When Mythologising Goes Bad - SPOILERS WARNING

This is the point at which my blog makes an awkward tonal shift.

I had the dubious pleasure of watching The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas last night. I had read the book before as well, and unlike the apparent massive sales of the book and various accolades for the film, I was left feeling slightly uneasy about the whole thing. And apparently I'm not the only one. (1)

Spoilers ahoy, for those who have neither watched or read, but want to. Are those people gone? Good.

As you hold-outs probably know, the book concerns the friendship that develops between a young German boy and a Jewish boy who are either side of a barbed wire fence. The stinger is, of course, that the Jewish boy is in a concentration camp (both mix up the difference between a Work camp and an Extermination Camp) - referred to in the book as "Out With", which I'll come back to in a minute. The final twist (seriously, I did warn you, stop reading if you want to read or watch it) is that the German boy eventually sneaks into the camp under the fence and is killed, while the camp commander, who is also his Father, obliviously looks on. Roll credits. Pass the tissues.

On the surface, it's a good story. It also has a clear moral, I suppose (although I think anybody who needs to be told that wantonly exterminating minorities is an evil thing to do is probably pretty much past help anyway). Dig a little deeper though, and you run into some massive problems.

The first, and most obvious, is that it reduces the largest mass extermination of ethnic minorities in history into a tragedy about a boy who is not a member of any of those minorites. The second is that it inaccurately displays history, mostly in some very minor ways (that fence would probably have been electrified) right up to horrifically distorting it. The "Out With" reference I mentioned earlier is clearly a play on Auschwitz. Apart from the obvious geographical fact that Auschwitz was in Poland, not Germany, there is also the fact that if you were unable to work (ie: a child or elderly) you simply would not have survived long enough to strike up a friendship with anyone, let alone someone on the other side of a very heavily supervised fence. These are a couple of examples. There are many more -  I won't iterate them here, and there are a couple of justifications for a couple of them (dramatic license is ABSOLUTELY NOT a justification).

These facts may seem distasteful to some, and I may be accused of being flippant. I am absolutely not. Stories and movies inform the way we view the world, especially history. If you don't believe me, try the following experiment. Picture William Wallace. If you claim you didn't immediately picture Mel Gibson, or even just someone in a kilt, rather than this, you are either a medieval history student or a liar. In most cases, it doesn't matter, but it it is very important to remember that within living memory, between 11 and 17 million people (including 6 million Jews) were killed on the mandate of a state and the silent assent of its people. Nothing less than the absolute truth is what the victims of this, almost certainly the greatest atrocity ever committed, deserve - not only for the victim's sakes, but to make sure it never even approaches happening again.

Posterity deserves better than a Grimm's Fairy Tale.

(1) This gives a more detailed criticism of the film from a Rabbi's perspective. It is far more powerful than what I have written here, and I have tried not to simply reword it. This post is more about how the book and the film made me personally uncomfortable, and why it's probably not a good idea to trumpet either the book of the film as a 'classic' or a 'tragedy'. For those who don't want to click the link, the tl:dr version is this: "No one may dare alter the truths of the Holocaust, no matter how noble his motives."

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Why I take the train

So, rail prices have gone up again. Angry commuters have been interviewed on the BBC (well, one) and there have been dark mutterings about "poor service" and "rip-off". Again.

Apart from the well-entrenched position that the service is unreliable (when in fact it's more reliable than ever) one of the main arguments I have heard for owning a car as opposed to getting the train is that it's cheaper. The conversation usually runs along the lines that the cost in petrol is less than the cost of a train ticket.

Obviously this is true. The trouble is, petrol isn't the only cost associated with a car. And I began to wonder, starting from scratch, how far would I have to travel in order to make a car worth my while?

Let's start with a typical journey, one that I make reasonably often. St Neots (where I live) to Southampton (where I party). Let's also assume a few other things. I own a new, reasonably priced, small car. A Fiesta say. That way I don't have to factor in things like 'reliability' because hopefully it won't break down. Let's also assume I drive the average mileage - roughly 13000 miles a year. Assuming I'm using my car for nothing else, this equals (rather conveniently for my maths) about 50 round trips to Southampton a year - about once a week.

From a train fare point of view, if I'm buying my tickets the day before or on the day, the fare is equal to £52.40 if I'm not returning the same day. This means that I am potentially spending £2620 per year on rail fares. This number, of course, goes down considerably if I'm buying my tickets in advance. Easy peasy.

My brand-spanking new Fiesta does an average of 34 MPG, according to Ford's website. A gallon is fairly roughly 3.8 litres, so my Fiesta does 8.95 Miles per litre of fuel I put in it. This is all petrol, by the way. The lowest petrol price near me is 134.9p, so it costs me about 15p per mile I travel in my lovely Fiesta. This means it costs me £1950 in petrol per year to drive it the 13000 miles to and from Southampton repeatedly. At this point, in my car, I'm pretty happy that I have come out nearly £700 ahead of my train taking alter ego. And that's if I'm travelling alone - stick someone willing to pay half the petrol cost and you're really in the money.

Trouble is, that's not the only cost associated with owning a car, and nobody else (except perhaps your parents) is going to help you pay these bits. First off, I can't drive. The average cost of learning to drive in the UK is about £1200, depending on if you pass first time. That gets added on. The cost of actually buying the car (the brand new Fiesta, remember) is £9790 and up. I'm a cheapskate, so I'm going with the basic model with no features. It's essentially bodywork, seats and an engine. Road tax and carbon tax adds on £235. My insurance premium as a new driver on this car is £2220.13 (on the cheapest deal, keeping it in a locked garage, me the only driver etc. on Go Compare). This is below average, I would point out.

This adds up to a whopping £13445.13. Clearly, over the course of a year, I should get the train. So, how long do I have to drive before this becomes worth my while? A few things will happen Firstly, I don't have to repurchase the car. The second is that I won't have to learn to drive again. The third is that my insurance will go down. So, essentially, the only figure that remains the same (assuming it hasn't been changed) is the tax. Let's just pretend for a moment that that's the only thing I have to pay (my insurance is now free - this simplifies things considerably, and it biases the following claculation in the car's favour).

So, in order for my car to be better value than the train, assuming things like rail fares and petrol remain roughly the same, it has to have cost me on average less than £2620 a year. I'm already paying £1950 in fuel and £235 in road tax each year, so that leaves £435. Unfortunately for 'cars are cheaper' advocates, this means I have to drive my car for nearly 31 YEARS for me to go into the black. Assuming that my not-new-car-any-more doesn't break down or require repairing and that I don't pay insurance after the first year. EVEN IF I am taking two other people each time, paying their share of the petrol, it's still around 13 years.

This is for a car costing under £10000. It goes up quite a lot if you start looking into Land Rovers.

From a purely financial point of view, I think I'll stick to the train for now.



Saturday, 11 August 2012

Bestsellers and The End of Civilisation.

So apparently, 50 Shades Of Grey is the best-selling book of all time in the UK.


This was being posted on various blogs and forums and walls with the standard "What is the world coming to?" response, a response I have indulged in occassionally. (It feels good to rail against the artless masses from your Island of Good Taste, even if the island itself consists of Bernard Cornwell novels and an Xbox Live account).

But what troubled me this time was the following - "What on earth does 'best-seller' actually mean?". It's a more difficult question to answer than I thought, especially when you realise that the Telegraph article linked to above essentially qualifies and slightly contradicts itself in the sub-header. "Of all time" is not quite the same as "since records began". Also, I'd imagine in an "Of all time" contest there would be a clear winner. You can guess. It begins with a 'B'.

The trouble is, when it comes to book sales, the data is apparently extremely difficult to collate across everything. The number that has been quoted for sales of 50 Shades, 5.3 million, is a number released by the Publisher, Random House. I'm not implying it's unreliable, it's just useful to know where data has come from.

In response to this, The Guardian produced this list. It ostensibly shows that 50 Shades Of Gray is still behind Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and three of the Harry Potter books. "There's hope for humanity!" I hear you cry. Until you read a bit deeper, and realise these numbers are apparently from sales of the actual physical books, not e-books. If you added on e-book sales, or at the very least adjusted for the sales lost to ebook sales, it would almost certainly be higher up the list, perhaps even top. The e-book industry has taken such a massive bite out of the industry that not including at the very least some kind of + 25 to 33% 'extra' sales on their data make it pretty worthless.

The two other things to note about these data is that firstly the oldest book is from 1989 (To Kill A Mockingbird). If this is the "records" that the Telegraph mentioned beginning, 23 years does not strike me as a long time. The other is that all of the top twenty books have been published since 1997, with all bar three published since 2003. Surely this might mean that more people are reading overall. In amongst all of the hysteria about taste and decency going down the pan, this strikes me as a Good Thing.

So what we go from is "50 Shades Of Grey is best-selling book of all time" to "50 Shades Of Grey may be best-selling book since 1989, during a period of increasing readership in general, but it's almost impossible to tell." Less catchy, I suppose.

As for the actual book, I leave it to Gilbert Gottfreid.